Julie Robb (all names have been changed) laid her 5-year-old son Seth to rest on February 13. "He was her life," a relative said. Stunned mourners filled St. Margaret’s Church. They were grandparents, aunts, future step-siblings and stepfather. They were neighbors, friends, teachers, and strangers. After the service, family members led Julie and her teenage daughter down the church steps. One leaned on the other as though each had lost a limb. An entourage wound past the river toward the cemetery to surrender the half-casket into the New England earth where the little body would sleep.
Those who knew the child described him as a smart and happy kid with a big heart. He liked hunting and fishing with his dad, spending nights with his dad, and blowing bubbles with his grandma. It was said that his dad, John Robb, guarded the child against second-hand smoke, bragged to friends about what he and his boy did together, and kept his son’s picture nearby. Grandma, Grandpa, and Dad took Seth to Walt Disney World. Like a million other kids, Seth must have twirled giddy in a teacup and giggled to shake Goofy’s hand. He may have held onto his dad in the haunted house so that a ghoul wouldn’t steal him away. By all accounts, this little boy was loved.
A few days before Seth Robb was buried, as I was driving to work I turned on the radio: "Father charged in the shooting death of his 5-year-old son. John Robb allegedly shot the child in the head with a shotgun. Robb, now undergoing a medical evaluation at University of…." My heart picked up a beat, and I turned off the radio.
Later that day, as I sat with colleagues in the university health center cafeteria, one asked if I’d heard about the guy who shot his kid. I nodded.
"I bet he’s on the prison ward," he said, glancing upward.
"I turned off the radio this morning. I just couldn’t listen to it," I said. "And you know something that’s a little scary? I could kill him. Really, I could walk right up there with a gun, aim it at his head, look him in the eye, and pull the trigger. I wouldn’t even blink." I thought about the kick of a rifle, knocking him against one wall and me against the other.
"I could do that to Osama bin Laden," someone else said.
"But what this guy did…I mean, Osama didn’t even know his victims. But killing a kid, your own child. It goes against nature," I argued.
"Yeah, from an evolutionary sense, perpetuating your genes and all…it doesn’t make sense," agreed another, intellectualization providing some relief.
My intellectualization progressed to reading all the clippings from the local newspapers that I could find on Julie, John, and Seth Robb. I wanted to know why this father killed his son. Why did this little boy’s death stir a murderous storm within me, one who doesn’t consider violence a solution? As a psychiatrist, could I hate this man?
I found out that John Robb, 34, drank heavily. He was depressed at losing everything: his wife, his house, his job, and unrestricted visitation rights. He had an arrest history for alcohol-related charges and weapons violations. He had apparently abused his estranged wife and a girlfriend but had not been threatening toward his child. Julie Robb alleged that her estranged husband told her if she ever took his son away from him, he would "blow her head off." Instead, on the day he was to drop Seth off at half-day kindergarten, just before meeting Julie in divorce court, John destroyed the only precious thing he had left.
Was the killer a monster or a man? An early newspaper article assumed the monster hypothesis as it misreported that the boy had been decapitated by the shotgun blast, with the head found on a shooting range and the body found in a neighboring town. This macabre version was renounced in the next edition. The small body had been found intact, carefully wrapped in a bloody blanket inside a large toolbox in the back of his father’s red truck. At the scene, John Robb was found motionless and severely intoxicated in front of the home where the family once lived.
John Robb may be as much a monster as Osama bin Laden, though maybe not. I have treated patients whose lives were also filled with grudges and wounds. Some were melancholic, some flooded their brains with alcohol that washed away their sensibilities, some unforgivably hurt others. At times I despised what they had done; yet, I don’t recall truly hating any one of them.
I no longer wish for John Robb to be dead. However, he may want that for himself, and the state may oblige as prosecutors seek the death penalty. I wonder though: his execution would be for whom? Would it be for Seth, who loved his dad? Or for Julie, who once loved John? Or would it be for those of us who need John to be the antithesis of who we are? For John, I suspect the risk of suicide is high and may have been his original intent. Perhaps the mental illness of alcoholism combined with despair may have overtaken him. Perhaps the bullet was symbolically meant for his estranged wife or was John’s way of saying that if he couldn’t have his son, then no one would.
I have a 5-year-old son, happy and funny and attentive and alive. He may have overheard his father and me talking about Seth. I know he heard on television about the mother who drowned her children, and perhaps he also heard about the woman who left her little ones to die inside a scorching hot car. One night he asked me, "Mom, would you ever kill me?"
"Of course not," I answered, as I closed my hand around his in a way that reminded me of a walnut’s shell protecting the most delectable part of itself.
"Ah, I love you Mama." He snuggled in close.
With my arm around his almost-still-a-baby body, my internal storm calmed. Pleading, longing, and thankfulness replaced the hate. I closed my eyes and thought, "I would die in your place; I would kill to keep you safe." I closed my eyes tighter. "Please don’t let me fall into the depths of a psychosis that drowns my children, or into alcoholism that dissolves my babies sealed inside a smoldering California car, or into a destructive depression that turns inside out."
"I love you too." I said, as I kissed his shampoo-sweet head. "Goodnight, sweetheart."
Address reprint requests to Dr. Tinsley, University of Connecticut Health Center, 263 Farmington Ave., Farmington, CT 06030-1935; firstname.lastname@example.org (e-mail).